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Thursday, October 11, 2012

FAPE, LRE, and Distance Learning

At State Impact, John O'Connor writes about 13-year-old Henry Frost.  During the Republican convention in Tampa, he sat outside a downtown Tampa building holding a sign: “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 granted equal rights to all people. I am a person. I want these rights.”
Frost has autism and a list of related physical problems which have so far eluded a tidy diagnosis. He communicates using an iPad app that speaks what he types.
The right Frost is seeking is the ability to attend Wilson Middle School in his South Tampa neighborhood. The Hillsborough County school district has told Frost they believe he is better off at a specialized program at Coleman Middle School, his family says.
Frost’s photo – and his cause – has gone viral since the photo was posted at the end of August. Thousands have given it an electronic thumbs-up on his I Stand WITH Henry Facebook page. And more than 2,100 have signed an online petition asking Hillsborough schools to let Frost attend Wilson Middle.
Disabilities and special education experts say it’s a common dispute: A family and a school district disagree about what school is best for the student.
School officials say they work hard to give thousands of students with disabilities and their parents what they want. But sometimes parents don’t get the final decision and school officials do.

While he tries to win admission to Wilson, Frost is taking course at home online. His family worries he is falling behind his classmates. Frost says he just wants to prove himself in a general education classroom.
Taking courses online is problematic.  Difficulties with social communication are at the core of ASD, and it is hard for students to overcome such problems if they are sitting alone at a computer screen instead of attending classes in general education classrooms. The Center for Online Learning and Students with Disabilities identifies a number of concerns with online learning:
  1. Complaints: Reports of complaints and dispute resolutions are beginning to emerge as parents and others express serious concerns about how students with disabilities are served in online learning environments.
  2. Inconsistent Policies: Ambiguity and variability exist in cross-state and cross-district funding, policies, and roles and responsibilities for providing special education and related services to students with disabilities in online environments.
  3. Accessibility and Universal Design: Preliminary inspection of widely adopted online environments reveals major gaps in basic accessibility for students with disabilities. Equally concerning is the general lack of instructional design and the specific lack of universal design for learning options. As some states have begun to include online learning as a graduation requirement, this poses a significant civil rights issue.
  4. Teacher Training: Preparation for teaching online courses is often minimal even for regular education teachers. The special preparation in the unique competencies required to provide online instruction to students with disabilities is often totally absent.
  5. Monitoring and Accountability: No national data are available to demographically describe the students with disabilities engaged in online learning (e.g., socioeconomic status, types of disabilities, age/grade levels) and thus there is no way to monitor their progress, proportionality, and outcomes.
  6. Reasons for Placement: Educators and policy makers presently have little knowledge of why students with disabilities (and their parents) choose to engage in online learning (with the possible exception of those students involved in credit recovery activities). Some have raised concerns that online learning is being adopted as the least effortful alternative.
  7. Social and Emotional Supports: Educators and policy makers have insufficient information about whether and how online service providers address the non-academic and social-emotional aspects of special education in online learning.
  8. Lack of Guidance: No guidelines exist to determine whether an online learning environment is truly the least restrictive environment for students with disabilities.
  9. Inequities: A digital divide (e.g., access to bandwidth infrastructure and devices) remains in many communities throughout the U.S., and the extent to which this divide affects access for students with disabilities is unknown.